Writing Non-Fiction, PLASTIC AHOY! & “What I did last summer”…

Patti Newman and plasticHow did author Patricia Newman’s new book, PLASTIC, AHOY! change my summer plans?  No, this isn’t a throwback to that annual prompt my teachers greeted us with:

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

This post celebrates an important non-fiction title that can alter a seemingly harmless mindset in your class or your family, and teach kids ways to help save our planet.

Patti Newman new cover 6.3.13In PLASTIC, AHOY!, Newman (pictured above with her own plastic discoveries) and award-winning photographer Annie Crawley chronicle a research expedition known as SEAPLEX, and scientists who study the massive “island” of plastic trash in the Pacific Ocean known as

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

PLASTIC, AHOY! (Millbrook/ Lerner) not only shows how the scientific method is used in this investigation, it opens readers’ eyes to the basics of ocean science and

the hazards of our dependency on plastics.

Patti and I have been writing pals for years, and Co-Regional Advisors of SCBWI CA North/Central, so I took the message of her book to Fine Arts Camp where I teach Theater and–

IMG_0390–we’ll get to how PLASTIC, AHOY! helped to change our habits at Sugarloaf below… 

IMG_0455But first, a short interview to to thank Patricia Newman and PLASTIC, AHOY! for the nudge I needed to decrease my plastic consumption:

Q: Which best describes the process of writing a non-fiction book like PLASTIC, AHOY!

  1. The Scientific Method
  2. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
  3. The North Pacific Central Gyre
  4. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle   

Patti: I’d never thought about the writing process in terms of the vocabulary in PLASTIC, AHOY! before. Actually the writing process has elements of all four items in your list.

Like the scientific method, I began with a tiny snippet of information, a news article,
from which questions grew. Research is a bit of an experiment to find answers to those questions and to uncover others. The results make their way into the book in the form of story, scientific facts, and the conclusions I draw.

But if you saw my office and my floor-as-file-drawer filing system, you might conclude that my writing process resembles the swirling currents that surround the North Pacific Central Gyre and spit trash into the Garbage Patch.

With any nonfiction project, I gather more material than I can possibly use in one book, so I’m forced to Reduce. I Reuse and Recycle information in various blog posts about PLASTIC, AHOY! and new projects on the horizon.

Q: What was the most surprising fact or discovery you made while writing this book?

Patti: Scientists in Woods Hole, MA counted 7,000 different kinds of bacteria–not individuals–rafting on a tiny piece of plastic no larger than your pinky fingernail. The bacteria attract single-celled grazers which in turn attract larger consumers and predators. Before you know it, an entire Who-ville (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Seuss) hitchhikes aboard a confetti-sized floating piece of trash.

7,000 different kinds of bacteria!

Q: Who are some of your environmental heroes?

Patti:  The three scientists who take center stage in PLASTIC, AHOY! top the list:

Miriam Goldstein, Darcy Tanaguchi, and Chelsea Rochman

(To see where they are now, visit the Ocean Plastics thread on Newman’s blog).

My award-winning photographer Annie Crawley protects the ocean every day through school visits and diving programs that teach kids to respect it. By the way, everyone calls her Ocean Annie!

Since the release of PLASTIC, AHOY! Newman says she’s met many other heroes, too:

o Mike Biddle is a Walnut Creek, California resident and the CEO of MBA Polymers, a plastics recycling company. Mike not only recycles plastic, he strips it down to its essence and reprocesses it into the basic building blocks–or nurdles if you’ve read Plastic, Ahoy!–which he sells back to manufacturers of electronics, coffee machines, and vacuum cleaners, to name a few (listen to his TED talk). Popular Science profiled Mike in the March 2014 issue as “the man who could free the world from making new plastic. Forever.” Mike also founded the Plasticity Forum, an influential dialogue on our world of plastic.

o COASST, a team of citizen scientists from Washington, have noticed patterns in the debris that washes ashore from ocean currents and wave action. They categorize the debris to see what kinds of trash washes up and when. From these data, they hope to determine if different species are more vulnerable during different times of the year based on the patterns.

Newman is quick to add that, “Adults aren’t the only ones saving the environment. I’ve Skyped with two groups of students who win Environmental Hero status.”

o First grade students at W. E. Striplin Elementary School in Alabama decided to reduce the amount of Styrofoam in their lunchroom. The students received permission to switch to reusable trays for several weeks to understand how much Styrofoam first graders alone could eliminate. The lunchroom produced an average of eight garbage bags of trash a day. The first graders cut the garbage output by two bags per day with reusable trays. Now their focus is to eliminate Styrofoam in the lunchroom for all grades.

o The Recycling Club at Calf Pen Meadow School in Milford, Connecticut initiates projects for the entire school that encourage fellow students to focus on the environment.

Q: What are some other ways that PLASTIC, AHOY! readers have reduced their plastic footprint? 

Patti: People love to tell me how they are saving the ocean. I’ve had reports of readers reminding themselves to carry reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic ones. My daughter spreads the news through the San Diego Zoo blog for which she writes. Others have said no to Styrofoam “doggie bags” and instead wrapped their leftovers in aluminum foil. Some participate in coastal cleanups. One friend took one of my blog posts to her local Safeway to argue against their use of plastic grocery sacks.

The point is that everyone can be an environmental hero. Reduce your single-use plastic consumption. Reuse what you already have on hand. And Recycle what you can’t use–chances are your local waste department recycles more kinds of plastic than you think. Have you checked the list lately?

For more information about Patti and PLASTIC, AHOY! check out these blog posts:

“Chatting Non-fiction Writing with Patricia Newman” by Joy Preble.

“Naturally Speaking” by Nancy Castaldo.

“Patricia Newman Has a Cause, and once kids read her NF book, they will too!” on the SCBWI blog by Lee Wind

And since you’re still reading, for decades at Sugarloaf Fine Arts Camp, where I am “Drama Mama,” aka head of the Theater program, I’ve purchased flats of plastic bottled water to give our thirsty performers after the final production. After reading PLASTIC, AHOY!, I did the math: Forty-eight water bottles X two sessions each year for over twenty years adds up.


This summer, each student filled their own reusable SUGARLOAF water bottle which we had ready for them after final bows.

IMG_0388 - CopySuch a simple solution, right?

Pass it on!

Accept the challenge:

Share PLASTIC, AHOY! with your school, or class, or family. I’d love to hear what solutions they come up with to take care of our planet!

Happy Book Launch: A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT by Jim Averbeck


to my writer pal Jim Averbeck, whose debut middle grade novel,

Jim Averbeck coverA HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT (Atheneum/S&S)

launches TODAY!

“…macabre twists that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dahl book.” KIRKUS

“In 1956 at the fabulous San Francisco Fairmont Hotel, 11-year-old Jack teams up with the famous movie director Alfred Hitchcock to uncover a plot involving drugged chocolates, mistaken identities, kidnapping, disguises, and close escapes. References to actual Hitchcock films and anecdotes abound throughout, in chapter headings, settings, and focused descriptions reminiscent of camera pan-ins….”–the pacing and length of scenes are right out of a 1950s Hitchcock film: slow and lingering on set pieces and build-up, broken with quick and cinematic action sequences. The back matter introduces many of the author’s favorite Hitchcock films, as well as information about the real man and the real Fairmont Hotel. This is a fantastic introduction to the great filmmaker and to a 1950s sensibility of childhood and Hollywood….School Library Journal

Jim was one of the “Book-dads” who contributed to my WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU’RE EXPECTING–A BOOK blog series last year, and now his new “baby” is out!

To celebrate the occasion, I’ve posed some potentially Psycho questions…


1. Where did the idea of HITCH come from?

Jim:  ” It didn’t come from a single place. Like a story, several threads of ideas wove themselves together. One of them was undoubtedly Richard Peck’s advice that

“We don’t write what we know. We write what we can research.”

When I heard this at a conference, I was disheartened. I do not enjoy doing research. Or so I thought.”

cable car“Like many San Franciscans, I came from elsewhere and fell deeply in love with this city. I wanted to know everything about it. One day while I was exploring its history, I realized that I don’t dislike research, I just dislike researching topics that bore me, as I occasionally had to do at school. So, if I were to write a novel, it would have to be about things I loved. San Francisco history was a natural match.”

AlfredA bookstore owner had a hand in A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT’S genesis, too. She pointed me to a book about Alfred Hitchcock’s use of the Bay Area in his films. It’s amazing how a good bookseller knows just the right book to recommend. I devoured it. Then one night I happened to go to a show at a hotel in SF that was a location in a Hitchcock film. I imagined that the film maker stood right where I was standing. No space separated us, only time. I decided that I could remove those intervening years to write a story about a boy meeting the famous director.”

2. What was the most difficult scene to write?

Jim: “The most difficult scene was actually something I had to UNWRITE. In early drafts there was a scene where Hitchcock and Jack confront another character, who then vomits up a ton of information that I needed the reader to know. It was as if, even after smoothing out the rest of the story, I had this Gordian Knot right in the center of it- a tangle of information that I couldn’t figure out how to reveal in a less heavy-handed way. Eventually I realized that, even if I untangled the knot, all the information would still be in one place. So I cut the knot up and looked at all the tiny strands I had left. Then I took each little piece and read through the story looking for a place to reveal the information.”

3. Which Hitchcock movie describes your path as an author: 

The Birds — Psycho –Vertigo–The Man Who Knew Too Much — Rear Window –Stranger on a Train — Shadow of a Doubt –39 Steps — Notorious or….?

Jim: “Hmmm… Vertigo. Because being a writer is very much like throwing yourself off a bell tower. You take a terrifying leap, experience a thrilling high, and very likely come to a bad end.”


4. HITCH is your first longer work of fiction.  How did your process differ from your picture books?

BLUE ROOMEXCEPT IFthe market bowl

Jim: “Word choice was still important, but I looked at the story more at the chapter level: Does this chapter move the story along or reveal something about the characters? If it were not in the book would the story be affected? How can I pace it better?”

Pantser or Outline?

Jim: “A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT is a mystery novel so it really demanded an outline. I needed to know what the clues were and when they were going to drop. I needed to make note of what the main character knows at every minute. I don’t think it can be done well by the seat of one’s pants.”

5. How do you revise without having to read the whole thing all over again?

Jim: “As a matter of fact, I did have to read the whole thing over and over again, quite often. But I also had an enormous flowchart with different shaped boxes depending on whether something was a clue, or a red herring, or a plot point. At first this chart was an utter mess. It looked like a bowl of spaghetti. But as I revised and revised, I ironed it out to get a story that lived up to the chart’s name and really flowed.”

6. What would you like readers to know about this book?

Jim: “That smart kids will like it very much.”


How can you lovely blog-post readers help launch Jim’s book?

**When you spot HITCH in the book store, tweet a photo to @JimAverbeck and/or @EastWestLit  or share it on Jim’s Facebook page.

**Share this blog post on Twitter or Facebook. (Notoriously Shameless request, I know.)

photo(128)**Click on the image above and check out the awesome HITCH book trailer! (Muahaha…)

**Get yourself a copy of A HITCH AT THE FAIRMONT !

**Check out Jim’s website for the GOODREADS GIVEAWAY. (Ends soon.)

** TEACHERS & LIBRARIANS: An accompanying Common Core activity guide will soon be available at jimaverbeck.com. 


The Writing Process Blog Tour

NittyGritty_angled_smMy friend author–and SCBWI RA pal, Susan Uhlig tagged me to jump on the

Writing Process Blog Tour

so welcome to my two cents about this crazy-wonderful business.

You can read what Susan had to say about her process HERE. As for me…

What am I working on?

Like many authors, I’m working on several projects at once. My husband would like you to know my desk is always a disaster. I prefer the term, sea of creative chaos.

Currently afloat are:

  •  Notes, clippings, photos, books, and notes of my notes (Go ahead say it–I’m a compulsive over-achiever…) for a non-fiction biography project that clamped its jaws on me and won’t let go. Have I ever written anything like this before? Nope. Do I love it? YES!!!!!
  •  Five different versions of a picture book that popped into my head while working on the above project. This happens to me a lot. Whenever I work on a longer manuscript, picture book manuscripts tug at my sleeve until I give them a bit of attention. (“Me, me, me!!!!!” they cry.) Why five different versions? A wonderful editor has expressed interest but suggested a few revisions before it–possibly, maybe–HOPEFULLY–gets brought to acquisitions. (EVERYONE PLEASE CROSS YOUR FINGERS AND TOES NOW. Thank you.)  Do I mind making revisions even though the manuscript may not (but possibly, maybe–HOPEFULLY–will…) make the cut? HECK NO. This is part of our job as writers. Seriously, if an editor is interested, why wouldn’t you follow up on suggestions? BE SOMEONE EDITORS WANT TO WORK WITH, my friends.
  •  A YA manuscript that I spent four months revising–after a few very glowing rejections (those are GOOD things!).  Right now I’m letting the body heat go out of it, and waiting. (Note: Waiting is not my strong suit, believe me. Again–it’s part of the job) I’ll re-read it next week and by then I should have received the responses and suggestions from a few fantastically generous Beta reader pals who are reading it now. (THAT THING ABOUT CROSSING YOUR FINGERS? YES, PLEASE.)
  •   I’m also working through my stack of To Be Read novels and picture books. Happily, so. Isn’t it great that reading is also part of the job?
  • LAST BUT NOT LEAST, I have a stack of delightful letters from kids, pictures they’ve drawn for me: (Have I mentioned that I LOVE school visits?) photo(113)

Is this the best job ever or what????

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Can anyone tell me what this means?  I’ve been told I think “outside of the box” so maybe that’s it. My brain does work in quirky ways but my students used to rationalize it with, “Oh, she’s the drama teacher…” As an author, I’d like to think my work is different because it’s my work. Like fingerprints or snowflakes. No one else truly has your voice–or hears your character’s voice like you do. You could give a pride of writers the same theme or topic and every one of us would write something different.

(Yes, I used the plural, “pride.” We are writers, Here us roar!)

Why do I write what I do?

This is my brain. This is my brain on words.

Ideas pop in and I honor them. See where they go. Sometimes they go nowhere. ***See my youtube Rough (Ruff) Drafts if you need proof:  

Rough (Ruff) Drafts by Max the Writer Dog >Click to view<

Rough (Ruff) Drafts by Max the Writer Dog

Other times, they become books and I get to share them at school visits and Skype visits and marvel as they take on lives of their own. That thing about the BEST JOB EVER? Oh, I’m very lucky, indeed.

How does my writing process work?

I believe the technical term is “Pantser.”

As mentioned above, I honor the muse. If you watched Max’ video above, you know I also honor the SLOPPY COPY.

I try to get the story out first and see where it goes. Sometimes it ends up an entirely different story than I initially thought it would be. I don’t outline. For longer works–if it’s going somewhere–other than the recycle bin–I make sure it has a beginning, middle , and end BEFORE I pull it apart and map it out. Or go crazy with post-it notes on a particle board. (Start from the bottom and go up as the tension and or stakes raise. I’m a visual person so this helps to remind me.)

Color coded by act.  Yes, I'm a drama teacher.

Color coded by act.
Yes, I’m a drama teacher.

My favorite book on craft at this point is SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder, “the last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.” Works for books too.

For picture books, sometimes I dummy out the story to see if I have enough to support the illustrations. (No, I don’t illustrate my own books. Or I haven’t yet–despite my minor in Art. The editor will match you with an illustrator.) My PB manuscripts weigh in at about 300 words or so. I remember when my new-reader was little and I dreaded the text-heavy picture books–especially at bed time! I want readers to read my books over and over again. I look for hooks at the end of scenes that will make readers want to turn the pages. I make sure every word counts.

Once the above is done, I share the manuscript with several of my writer pals, the aforementioned fantastically generous Beta reader pals.

I was part of a writing group–with awesome authors–for many years, and it taught me to make my writing life a priority. The English teacher in me would take over, however, and I found I was spending more time on my friends’ writing than I was on my own. I made the tough decision to step away.

Three writer pals I’d like you to meet:  


Natasha and I are members of SCBWI CA North/Central and if you haven’t joined your region yet CLICK HERE AND BEGIN YOUR WRITING JOURNEY. Now we see each other at book signings and conferences, but I’m pretty sure SCBWI was the initial connection. Natasha is the author of four picture books: Otto’s Rainy Day (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2000); Cixi, The Dragon Empress (Goosebottom Books, 2011); Sacajawea of the Shoshone (Goosebottom Books, 2012), and Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2014).
Goldy Luck
Natasha has also written for “Highlight for Children”, “Faces” and “Appleseeds”. She is currently working on a middle grade novel. To learn about her writing process, check in on her blog next Monday, May 26th: www.natashayim.blogspot.com and follow @NatashaYim  on Twitter.


Linda Joy SingletonLinda Joy is one of the aforementioned awesome authors from my Writing Group. She is also a member of SCBWI CA North Central, and after publishing over 35 middle grade novels and YA’s, her very first picture book SNOW DOG, SAND DOG , came out this year with Albert Whitman.

Snow dog coverShe’s passionate about dogs (and cats) and got the idea for SNOW DOG, SAND DOG  from a photograph of a friend building a snow dog as a child.

She lives in Northern CA on acreage with a menagerie of pets, loves to walk in nature, and has an audience of two orange cats and a white dog when she writes. Her website is full of free stories, writing tips, photographs and more, and to check out what she has to say about her writing process, see her blog next Monday, May 26th:  http://lindajoysingleton.blogspot.com/ and follow  on Twitter.


Heidi and I met when she was a student in my theater classes at SUGARLOAF FINE ARTS CAMP.  I am proud to say I was once her “Drama Mama” and now we are writer pals on Twitter. Heidi is the author of the contemporary YA, SEA (Putnam) and her Witch’s Brew: Spellspinners 1 launched The Spellspinners of Melas County series. The Gleaning: Spellspinners #2 followed and Devil’s Frost: Spellspinners #3 launched last January with seven more books to come in this serialized saga of estranged witches and warlocks, set in a modern, but fantastical world.

Devil'sFrost1875x2500Heidi lives in Northern California with her husband and two very creative kids. She also contributes short stories and essays to teen lit anthologies such as Truth & Dare, The First Time, A Visitor’s Guide to Mystic Falls, and Two & Twenty Dark Tales, and feeds her ravenous appetite for unputdownable books, addicting TV dramas and Thin Mints.

To see what her Writing Process is all about, check her blog next Monday, May 26th: http://heidirkling.com/blog/ and follow  on Twitter.

OH–and if you’re still reading this, don’t forget to thank a teacher tomorrow–on Twitter, on your blog, in person, by snail mail. #TATues or #ThankATeacherTuesday is every Tuesday in May (and November)–because teachers deserve much more than a banner or cupcakes in the faculty room. Who inspired you? Challenged you to do your personal best? Believed in your dreams?



Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day!

April 24th is Poem in Your Pocket Day and I got to celebrate by helping 3rd graders write Mother’s Day poems. (see School Visit Mother’s Day Poems for the full lesson.)   I also pulled this wonderful poem by the late Elaine Laron from my pocket throughout the day:


No One Else
by Elaine Laron
Now, someone else can tell you how
To multiply by three
And someone else can tell you how
To spell Schenectady
And someone else can tell you how
To ride a two-wheeled bike—
But no one else, no, no one else
Can tell you what to like.
An engineer can tell you how
To run a railroad train
A map can tell you where to find
The capital of Spain
A book can tell you all the names
Of every star above—
But no one else, no, no one else
Can tell you who to love.
Your aunt Louise can tell you how
To plant a pumpkin seed
Your cousin Frank can tell you how
To catch a centipede
Your Mom and Dad can tell you how
To brush between each meal—
But no one else, no, no one else
Can tell you how to feel.
For how you feel is how you feel
And all the whole world through,
No one else, no, no one else
as well as YOU!

Ms. Laron (1930-2013) wrote the anti-war song “Hell No, I Ain’t Gonna Go”

recorded by civil rights activist Matthew Jones, and was a writer and lyricist

for early children’s television programs such as Captain Kangaroo,

and The Electric Company.

This poem can be found in FREE TO BE YOU AND ME,
by Marlo Thomas and Friends.
What poem did you pull out of your pocket today?

Confessions (& Reviews) of a no-longer-Teenage Readaholic, pt5

I haven’t posted a book review for a while

and since today is my GORGEOUS friend

1911632_10152226786240926_1677233742_nJill Sanford’s BIRTHDAY (Surprise! )

(And I loaned her my copy of Paul Rudnick's YA novel--which she read in one sitting...)

…and I loaned her my copy of
Paul Rudnick’s
YA novel
–which she read in one sitting…

I give you herewith, her very first book review:

 I loved Becky and was never dissatisfied with her as the heroine of GORGEOUS (Scholastic Press). I appreciated her pluckiness and discomfort with being Rebecca although this could have been explored further, especially in the first half.  

I also found Rocher to be wonderful, lovable, and completely essential to the story, because all girls need a best friend and side kick like her.

But why did Becky never ask Tom why or how are any of these things possible until the end? I found her lack of incredulity not believable and wished the author, Paul Rudnick, had gone more into this. There was also a polarity of this world that didn’t really sit right with me.

On the one hand, GORGEOUS is a humorously portrayed and engaging take on the “real” world that felt a lot like Meg Cabot’s writing (please tell me you have read the Princess Diaries and not just seen the movie–the books are HILARIOUS.) But we also see the magic that isn’t fully explained or even acknowledged.

I would have loved more stressing of the fairy tale like aspects of the story- the little people who make her shoes, the perfumer with the giant nose, and her mom’s ring tone that precedes a magical event. For the most part, these aren’t emphasized very much and often seem a little down played. Rudnick missed an opportunity by not exploring these further. That being said, I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first. (Her interview to get the Queen’s blessing was priceless!)

And because deep down in my oh-so-jaded-and-worldy-now-24-year-old heart I have a fair amount of a sighing 16 year old romantic, I also loved Gregory and his kind-hearted princely-ness. The whimsical nature of the story made me laugh and smile when she (possibly--you never know–READ THE BOOK AND FIND OUT!) ends up with a prince. I didn’t feel the need to gag or roll my eyes at this at all.

Because in a world with magical dresses,

why can’t a girl like Becky

(who is really a girl like all of us) marry a prince?

Happy 24 Jill !!!

Happy 24 Jill !!!